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Cortex-M processor Family at the Heart of IoT Systems

Gabe Moretti, Senior Editor

One cannot have a discussion about the semiconductor industry without hearing the word IoT.  It is really not a word as language lawyers will be ready to point out, but an abbreviation that stands for Internet of Things.  And, of course, the abbreviation is fundamentally incorrect, since the “things” will be connected in a variety of ways, not just the Internet.  In fact it is already clear that devices, grouped to form an intelligent subsystem of the IoT, will be connected using a number of protocols like: 6LoWPAN, ZigBee, WiFi, and Bluetooth.  ARM has developed the Cortex®-M processor family that is particularly well suited for providing processing power to devices that consume very low power in their duties of physical data acquisition. This is an instrumental function of the IoT.

Figure 1. The heterogeneous IoT: lots of “things” inter-connected. (Courtesy of ARM)

Figure 1 shows the vision the semiconductor industry holds of the IoT.  I believe that the figure shows a goal the industry set for itself, and a very ambitious goal it is.  At the moment the complete architecture of the IoT is undefined, and rightly so.  The IoT re-introduces a paradigm first used when ASIC devices were thought of being the ultimate solution to everyone’s computational requirements.  The business of IP started  as an enhancement to application-specific hardware, and now general purpose platforms constitute the core of most systems.  IoT lets the application drive the architecture, and companies like ARM provide the core computational block with an off-the-shelf device like a Cortex MCU.

The ARM Cortex-M processor family is a range of scalable and compatible, energy efficient, easy to use processors designed to help developers meet the needs of tomorrow’s smart and connected embedded applications. Those demands include delivering more features at a lower cost, increasing connectivity, better code reuse and improved energy efficiency. The ARM Cortex-M7 processor is the most recent and highest performance member of the Cortex-M processor family. But where the Cortex-M7 is at the heart of ARM partner SoCs for IoT systems, other connectivity IP is required to complete the intelligent SoC subsystem.

A collection of some of my favorite IoT-related IP follows.

Figure 2. The Cortex-M7 Architecture (Courtesy of ARM)

Development Ecosystem

To efficiently build a system, no matter how small, that can communicate with other devices, one needs IP.  ARM and Cadence Design Systems have had a long-standing collaboration in the area of both IP and development tools.  In September of this year the companies extended an already existing agreement covering more than 130 IP blocks and software.  The new agreement covers an expanded collaboration for IoT and wearable devices targeting TSMC’s ultra-low power technology platform. The collaboration is expected to enable the rapid development of IoT and wearable devices by optimizing the system integration of ARM IP and Cadence’s integrated flow for mixed-signal design and verification.

The partnership will deliver reference designs and physical design knowledge to integrate ARM Cortex processors, ARM CoreLink system IP, and ARM Artisan physical IP along with RF/analog/mixed-signal IP and embedded flash in the Virtuoso-VDI Mixed-Signal Open Access integrated flow for the TSMC process technology.

“The reduction in leakage of TSMC’s new ULP technology platform combined with the proven power-efficiency of Cortex-M processors will enable a vast range of devices to operate in ultra energy-constrained environments,” said Richard York, vice president of embedded segment marketing, ARM. “Our collaboration with Cadence enables designers to continue developing the most innovative IoT devices in the market.”  One of the fundamental changes in design methodology is the aggregation of capabilities from different vendors into one distribution point, like ARM, that serve as the guarantor of a proven development environment.

Communication and Security

System developers need to know that there are a number of sources of IP when deciding on the architecture of a product.  In the case of IoT it is necessary to address both the transmission capabilities and the security of the data.

As a strong partner of ARM Synopsys provides low power IP that supports a wide range of low power features such as configurable shutdown and power modes. The DesignWare family of IP offers both digital and analog components that can be integrated with any Cortex-M MCU.  Beyond the extensive list of digital logic, analog IP including ADCs and DACs, plus audio CODECs play an important role in IoT applications. Designers also have the opportunity to use Synopsys development and verification tools that have a strong track record handling ARM based designs.

The Tensilica group at Cadence has published a paper describing how to use Cadence IP to develop a Wi-Fi 802.11ac transceiver used for WLAN (wireless local area network). This transceiver design is architected on a programmable platform consisting of Tensilica DSPs, using an anchor DSP from the ConnX BBE family of cores in combination with a smaller specialized DSP and dedicated hardware RTL. Because of the enhanced instruction set in the Cortex-M7 and superscalar pipeline, plus the addition of floating point DSP, Cadence radio IP works well with the Cortex-M7 MCU as intermediate band, digital down conversion, post-processing or WLAN provisioning can be done by the Cortex-M7.

Accent S.A. is an Italian company that is focused on RF products.  Accent’s BASEsoc RF Platform for ARM enables pre-optimized, field-proven single chip wireless systems by serving as near-finished solutions for a number of applications.  This modular platform is easily customizable and supports integration of different wireless standards, such as ZigBee, Bluetooth, RFID and UWB, allowing customers to achieve a shorter time-to-market. The company claims that an ARM processor-based, complex RF-IC could be fully specified, developed and ramped to volume production by Accent in less than nine months.

Sonics offers a network on chip (NoC) solution that is both flexible in integrating various communication protocols and highly secure.   Figure 3 shows how the Sonics NoC provides secure communication in any SoC architecture.

Figure 3.  Security is Paramount in Data Transmission (Courtesy of Sonics)

According to Drew Wingard, Sonics CTO “Security is one of the most important, if not the most important, considerations when creating IoT-focused SoCs that collect sensitive information or control expensive equipment and/or resources. ARM’s TrustZone does a good job securing the computing part of the system, but what about the communications, media and sensor/motor subsystems? SoC security goes well beyond the CPU and operating system. SoC designers need a way to ensure complete security for their entire design.”

Drew concludes “The best way to accomplish SoC-wide security is by leveraging on-chip network fabrics like SonicsGN, which has built-in NoCLock features to provide independent, mutually secure domains that enable designers to isolate each subsystem’s shared resources. By minimizing the amount of secure hardware and software in each domain, NoCLock extends ARM TrustZone to provide increased protection and reliability, ensuring that subsystem-level security defects cannot be exploited to compromise the entire system.”

More examples exist of course and this is not an exhaustive list of devices supporting protocols that can be used in the intelligent home architecture.  The intelligent home, together with wearable medical devices, is the most frequent example of IoT that could be implemented by 2020.  In fact it is a sure bet to say that by the time the intelligent home is a reality many more IP blocks to support the application will be available.

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